As boomers ascend to the corner office at Fortune 500 corporations, they’re also taking on leadership positions at major environmentalist groups.
You’ll find them leading the way to save the environment at nonprofits such as Greenpeace USA, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy. A boomer also heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), appointed by fellow boomer, President Barack Obama.
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Here’s a look at three of them and how their early years shaped their current work:
Gina McCarthy, Executive Director of the EPA
McCarthy, 61, was appointed as the nation’s environment czar in 2013 after working as the agency’s Assistant Administrator for Office of Air and Radiation since 2009. But her priority is keeping the air and water clean, not Democratic politics. McCarthy was also an environmental adviser to Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“My generation saw the birth of the environmental movement,” she told Next Avenue. “It was a time of big challenges — from oil-slicked rivers catching fire to cities shrouded in smog. But it was also a time for action, which is why my generation also saw the enactment of landmark environmental laws and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.”
McCarthy attributes her interest in environmental health issues to her childhood in the Boston area in the ‘60s.
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“When I was a kid, parents didn’t let you stay in the house, so I spent a lot of time outdoors. The Charles River and the Boston Harbor were so polluted back then,” she said, “you couldn’t pay someone enough to take a dip in them. I remember swimming at a beach close to Boston Harbor, and even then, the oil that got on your skin was tough to clean off. I also used to go to school near a rubber factory and we had to shut the windows because of how it smelled. I remember being concerned about what was in the air and what I was being exposed to.”
These experiences got McCarthy interested in a career where she could help address environmental health risks. She served five governors in Massachusetts before becoming Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
That led to her move to the EPA at a time when the United States faces a host of hot-button environmental issues from the Keystone XL pipeline to widespread rejection of global warming.
Reflecting on her generation’s work protecting the environment, McCarthy said: “Although we’ve made amazing progress, our environmental challenges have evolved. They’re multifaceted and less clear-cut. And to meet these challenges, our solutions have to evolve, too.”
Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy
Although Tercek, 58, heads up the leading conservation organization to protect ecologically important lands and waters, his path there was hardly a given. Previously, Tercek spent 24 years at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director and partner.
“I didn’t spend my childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s roaming the great outdoors,” he wrote in his 2013 bestseller, Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.
Tercek, born and raised in working-class Cleveland, said it wasn’t until he had kids and used the outdoors to get them away from TV and video games that he truly started enjoying nature. While at Goldman, he read a book by fellow boomer and now Stanford environmental science professor Gretchen Daily — The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable — that persuaded him to learn more about ecology from the perspective of someone with an MBA.
He started asking questions like: “When is protecting nature a good investment? Isn’t conservation really about building natural capital?”
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Tercek led a Goldman initiative to find business opportunities that also resulted in positive environmental outcomes. That experience got him excited by the potential of environmental organizations to work with businesses. Tercek wrote in his book: “I was a late bloomer but protecting nature became my cause and passion.”
Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA
Leonard’s barely a boomer; she was born in the last year of her cohort, in 1964. But the chief of the famous environmental protest group sees boomers as being at the right stage in life to have a positive impact on the environment.
“For many boomers, as we grow older, our values shift,” said Leonard, who began her career at Greenpeace International in 1988. “There’s less concern with material consumption and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.”
Leonard says she had a number of role models who instilled in her “a sense of potential and agency.”
Looking back, she says, “I realize that many of them were the first generation of women who were encouraged to seek professional careers and they were eager to hold the door open even wider for me and my peers. From my mother to my high school English teacher, so many older women told me that anything was possible. And it is with that sentiment that I decided to devote myself to one of today’s biggest challenges: Figuring out how to live on this magnificent planet we share in a way that is more sustainable . . . than we do today.”
She sees climate change as the biggest threat we face. “Climate change shows up in diverse ways,” she said, “from droughts and extreme weather events to disruptions in the patters of plan development and animal migrations.”
What can boomers do about it and about the environment in general?
“Polls show that huge numbers of boomers care about the environment but aren’t yet active,” said Leonard. “The best antidote to the fear and anxiety that comes from paying attention to the science of today’s environmental threats is getting active as part of the solution.”
Stephen L. Antczak is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and is the author of four books and more than 50 short stories.